The common wisdom among people who speak a second language is that you know you’re fluent—or at least well on your way to fluency– when you begin dreaming outside your mother tongue.

But for me, there were other indicators: When, a few minutes after speaking with someone or reading something, I couldn’t remember in which language the exchange had occurred. When I didn’t just understand the idioms of Mexico, but found myself using them unselfconsciously. When I stopped doing mental conversions from pesos to dollars or vice versa, instead making the decision to shop and save in the currency of my adopted country. When I began to think in 24 hour time, not AM/PM. And definitely when I began singing the words to the Mexican national anthem, broadcast every night on every radio station at 24:00.

These were indicators not just of linguistic fluency, but cultural fluency. Plenty of people could master a language; I was choosing, through so many of my life decisions, to inhabit a language, to live within it and let it live and grow inside of me. And yet, there was one area in which my fluency failed me, and that was at the Mexican table.

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By the time I moved to Mexico in 2007, I had been a student of Spanish, both formally and informally, for nearly 15 years. I had studied in Costa Rica, lived in Puerto Rico for almost three years, was married to a Cuban, and had traveled extensively throughout Latin America for work and pleasure. I had studied for a PhD in Spanish, the only student from the mainland U.S. in the program. Most of my brief career as a psychotherapist had occurred in Spanish, as I was assigned caseloads of clients who spoke it as their first, and often only, language. Much of my life was carried out in Spanish. But at the Mexican table, I was confounded frequently. Not only did I not know what huitlacoche, guajolote, and chilacayotes were, I wasn’t confident I could even pronounce half the words on the menu.

Many of those words, I’d learn much later, were derived from the languages of Mexico’s indigenous cultures, especially Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec people. It took me too long to learn this fact—and the pronunciations—because I was too embarrassed to ask questions. Wanting desperately for my fluency to be affirmed, I chose, instead, to request safe dishes, plates whose names required no decoding.

In those early weeks of living in Mexico City, I could have used the conversation that asking about unfamiliar ingredient names would have required. I was waiting for my husband’s visa to be processed so he could move from the U.S. to join me, and I was living in an apartment that had not yet been transformed into a home. It lacked furniture and Internet service. In the kitchen, the gas had not yet been turned on and the cabinets had not been filled with clay pots and wooden spoons and all of the tools we’d acquire during future trips to Cuernavaca, Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Veracruz, and Puebla. I hadn’t yet discovered our neighborhood market, Mercado Juárez, just a few blocks from our apartment, hadn’t yet made friends with its vendors, who, by the time we left Mexico, knew all of our shopping habits, knew what we loved and how we cooked it. And I didn’t yet have friends. In a city that nearly nine million people called home, myself among them, I was, absurdly, lonely.

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At the end of each day, I’d gather my keys and wallet and head out for dinner. Mexico’s capital has 44,000 restaurants, so it shouldn’t have been hard to find a different place to eat every night, but I quickly developed an odd habit. I’d make the seven-minute walk to the nearest Sanborns, and slide into a booth with a magazine or book. Everything about it was comforting, if slightly sad around the edges: its sundry store/lunch counter combination reminiscent of Woolworth, where I’d lunched with my grandmother on occasion when I was a child growing up in South Carolina.

There were the same types of white, scalloped-edge paper place mats and cheap, industrial silverware, light in the hand, adorning the tables. There were juice glasses and thick, diner-style porcelain coffee cups, and carafes of bitter coffee sitting on warming plates. There was even a vertical pastry case, with cakes and pies (or pays, I’d learn later), slowly pirouetting around and around.

Sanborns opened in Mexico in 1903, the fledgling business of Walter Sanborn, a pharmacist from California, and his brother, Frank. Though their official history doesn’t reference Woolworth, which was founded in Utica, New York in 1878, Sanborns was clearly riffing on the American department store-luncheonette idea. It ultimately epitomized the concept, especially after the Sanborn brothers opened a store in the Casa de los Azulejos. One of the most photographed buildings in Mexico’s Centro Histórico neighborhood, the Casa de los Azulejos is a stunner, an 18th-century building clad in the blue and white ceramic tiles for which the state of Puebla is famous. There, at what is now recognized as the Sanborns’ flagship, was “a luxurious restaurant, tea room, sodas, gift shop, pharmacy, and confectionery.”

It’s still there today. You can order a Sanborns de Lujo (“Luxury Sanborns”), a sandwich composed of chicken, ham, and Chihuahuan cheese, served on French bread, or a hamburger—Sanborns style or “British” style—or more traditional Mexican dishes: molletes or chilaquiles for breakfast or pozole or enchiladas at any other meal. For dessert, the soda fountain will dispatch banana splits or malteds, or a “squash,” a refreshing concoction of pineapple pulp, strawberries, and mineral water.

Though Woolworth still has a presence in Mexico, its stores are sans food. Sanborns, meanwhile, is going strong and its basic model has changed little over the past century. Yes, it now carries DVDs and flat-screen TVs and shoppers can buy phone cards to re-up the time on their movíles, but its food service remains, comfortingly, largely the same as it was in the early days. In an era when businesses are trying to cut costs and corners, Sanborns still brings a brimming basket of bread and crackers to every table and its meals are a value for middle-class Mexicans who can’t or don’t want to cook.

But it wasn’t nostalgia that drew me into Sanborns every night, where I was just one among a crowd of regulars, most of us solo and determined, each for our own reasons, to avoid social contact. Waitresses dressed in regional Mexican outfits, which changed depending on the menu’s featured state of the month, seemed similarly reluctant to engage, shuffling from one Formica table to another, taking orders hurriedly and averting their gaze. The menu, for its part, was self-explanatory, and that was the real reason I found myself returning to Sanborns more often than I admitted to anyone. While there were words on the menu that were unfamiliar to me, there were plenty of context clues. I could order with relative confidence or I could just stick with my usual: sopa de tortilla.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of what would arrive at the table. I have always been an adventurous eater, willing to try almost anything once. What worried me was that my ignorance would be exposed. Visually, I could never pass as Mexican, but at the very least, I wanted to pass culturally and linguistically. I didn’t need praise for my competence—“Oh! What excellent Spanish you speak!” What I yearned for was something entirely intangible: validation of the sense that I had found home.

**

I had never planned to move to Mexico City and I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with it. Life takes strange turns, though, and when I landed at Benito Juárez International Airport on a spring afternoon in 2007, I knew, just as soon as the plane door opened, that I had found my place in the world, an abstract, geographical version of love at first sight.

Understand, I did not know I was looking for my place in the world. In fact, I frequently described myself as being able to feel happy anywhere, able to make a home and become part of a community no matter where I traveled or lived. But when I arrived in Mexico City I was surprised to discover that I did indeed have a heart home. It was a feeling that would fill me daily, this suddenly new sense of belonging in and to a place, of feeling tied to it and rooted in it, of being in unconditional love with it while fully aware of its many flaws.

And it is a feeling that has continued to pull at me, leaving me somewhat unsettled, ever since we turned the long key in the lock of our apartment for the last time, returning to the United States after two years living in Mexico’s capital.

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But before the leaving—long before– there was the task of convincing others that Mexico City was my heart home, and how could I do that if I didn’t have a full command of Spanish at the table? Food, both its presence and its absence, is important everywhere, of course, but in Mexico it is identity. It is relationships. It is pastimes and labor. It is everything.

It is also its own language.

It is the sound of the camote vendor and his mournful whistle advertising steaming hot sweet potatoes as he circled our neighborhood each night. It is the man chanting “Ricos tamales oaxaqueños” over and over again as he circled Colonia Juárez on his bike, his voice piped through a loudspeaker. It is the pull of a dull knife slicing through jicama as a vendor in the Zócalo or in Parque Chapultepec prepares a plastic cup of fresh fruit, topped with a squeeze of lime—pfft!–and a dusting of chile and hands it off to a customer. It is the sound of oil bubbling as the employees at El Moro prepare to make hula hoop sized rings of churros, which they’ll then cut—snip, snip—and drag through sugar before serving, still hot. It is the sound of the aproned woman on the corner of Versalles and Reforma plopping spoonfuls of fat corn kernels into Styrofoam cups and the clatter of coins that clink together as she makes change for her customers, who are as likely to include besuited bankers who have just stepped out of their air-conditioned offices as construction workers who are building the new skyscrapers where you can pay with a credit card for a to-go meal from P.F. Chang’s or a sandwich from Subway or a flame-broiled burger from Burger King. And the longer I stayed, it was more intimate, personal sounds, like the growling buzz of my doorbell. On the other side was our building’s security guard, referred to generically as “Poli” (short for “Policia,” though he’s not a policeman) working a 24-hour shift. Could I possibly warm up his dinner? “Si, claro,” I replied, explaining that it would take a few minutes because I didn’t own a microwave.

**

That language, of course, is also constituted of actual words, and slowly, I started to learn them. I pored over the series of regional cookbooks that had been commissioned and published by CONACULTA, Mexico’s National Arts and Culture Council, in the 20th century, and reissued, with some new titles added, in the early 21st century. I had joked that I needed a dictionary solely for the foods of Mexico, and here it was. Or here they were: 58 volumes full of words, many of which I didn’t know, plenty of which I couldn’t pronounce. There was a cookbook for each of Mexico’s 31 states plus one for Mexico City, and specialty titles dedicated to entire ingredients (including, of course, corn and, less predictably, iguana) or the many iterations of a single iconic dish (the tamal, mole). A fair number in the series was devoted to Mexico’s cultural diversity: the recipes of Mennonite communities of Chihuahua, the Afromestizos of Veracruz, the Mixtecs of Puebla, the Huichols of Nayarit.

As I read tables of contents and chapter titles, I fell in love with the music of the words, even though I still didn’t know the meaning of so many terms. “Cahuama, coricos, coyotas, fiambre, jocoque, mochomos, pucha,” I’d whisper to myself in the library of Fundación Herdez, whose small but exceptional culinary library had become a frequent haunt of mine. The private recitations gave me courage to start admitting what I didn’t know and to ask for help– “Como se dice…?,” pointing to a word I didn’t know how to pronounce on a menu or on a package or label at the store. It was in this way that I learned cacahuate was Mexican Spanish for “peanut,” xoconostle was the fruit of the prickly pear and was easier to pronounce than it seemed at first glance, and tejocotes were the fruit of the Mexican hawthorn, and a key ingredient in the Christmas drink, ponche.

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I spent hours walking through markets, trying to memorize the names of chiles, of bean varieties, of herbs, and fish (“huachinango” for snapper, not “pargo,” as it was called in Puerto Rico). I bought ingredients I didn’t know how to cook and asked how to use them. Sometimes, I’d take a dish to Poli, 12 hours into his 24-hour shift. Later, he would buzz my doorbell, bringing me the plate, handed over to me with a solemn “Gracias.” I cooked squash blossoms and soaked dried beans and learned what time of day was best for buying tortillas at the market. I bought cookbooks and studied photos and the characteristics of Mexico’s many varieties of chiles. I discovered the spice grinder—a man whose shop was deliriously fragrant, whose wooden drawers filled with powders, seeds, and leaves were mysterious and mesmerizing. There were still many gaps in my knowledge and understanding—and in my speech, too—but I was growing more courageous and as a result, I was learning more. I was finally open to conversation—and to the very real possibility that whomever was speaking to me would soon learn that my apparent fluency ended where the Mexican table began. And I was okay with that. Without even noticing it, I stopped going to Sanborn’s, no longer in need of the security it offered.

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About Julie Schwietert Collazo

Julie Schwietert Collazo is an award-winning bilingual (English-Spanish) journalist who covers Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S. for a wide variety of print and online publications. Her work has been published by BBC, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, MS., Scientific American, TIME, and many more. Whenever possible, she works in conjunction with her husband, photographer Francisco Collazo. For a complete list of publications, visit www.collazoprojects.com/published-writing-photos. Julie has authored several books, including the international bestseller, Pope Francis in His Own Words, which has been translated into more than 15 languages. Along with Francisco, she has also done translation work for fellow journalists, including those on staff at The New York Times; for organizations, including the Electronic Freedom Foundation; and for art exhibits and documentaries. She is also co-founder of Cultures & Cuisines, a food & travel anthropology website launching May 2015.

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